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Interview with DROPSTONES director Caitlin Durlak

Dropstones, the directorial debut feature from Toronto filmmaker Caitlin Durlak, is a meditative, observational film about a single mom named Sonya and her two young boys who live on Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. Watch it at Hot Docs Festival, streaming across Canada from April 29 to May 9.

Hot Docs spoke to Caitlin about the appeal of making a film about a place called home, and the history of filmmaking on Fogo Island.

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Hot Docs: How did you meet your subjects and what initially compelled you to make a film about them?

Caitlin Durlak: A friend of mine worked at the Fogo Island Inn as a restaurant manager. They were short staffed for a couple of weeks one summer and he asked if I would come and fill in, so that's how I ended up there. Almost everybody I worked with in the restaurant was from the island, most of them born and raised. That’s where I met Sonya. Basically, every guest that met her fell in love with her. She's really outspoken and has all these amazing stories and I was just drawn to her. I remember meeting her for the first time in the kitchen and she was sitting on the counter holding a piece of steak in her hands and just chowing down. She's like: “What’s your story? What are you doing here?”. Eventually we became friends and she started telling me more about her life, why she left and why she returned, and what she wanted for her kids. And I started to realize that this “salty Narnia” that I saw of the island as a tourist wasn't the full picture. So many of the filmmakers who had come to the island in the past had focused on the fisheries and the men who worked in them. I felt that there was this big gap that didn't explain all of the women and children behind them. I wanted to draw back the curtains and see what it was like for these women that I work with, and for their kids.

HD: I didn't realize there was like a history of filmmaking on Fogo Island.

CD: Yes, the National Film Board of Canada created this video project called Challenge for Change in 1967, which partly started on Fogo Island. The project was for the purpose of addressing social concerns that were happening on the island, specifically in the fishing industry. The industry was originally a merchant system, and all the fishermen came together and wanted to stop that and turn it into a co-op instead, which they achieved. A filmmaker named Colin Low came and recorded all these town hall meetings that would happen on different parts of the island. That actually helped people on different parts of the island mobilize, learn what was going on in other parts, and move towards systematic change, in terms of restricting the fishing industry. I think there are around 20 of these short films. Some were of the meetings, some were portraits of specific fishermen. One of them is about the women of the island, speaking to domestic issues, and one is about the children, which was a bit more playful.

HD: It's cool. Your film is like a feminist revision of this storied film history.

CD: Sure! One thing I had to do was convince the owner of the Inn to let me film Sonya working. The owner had grown up on the island and actually remembers Colin Low. She was a kid when he was there and was briefly in one of the films. When I initially wanted to film she was very hesitant because she was concerned about portraying the island in a way unappealing to tourists, that their fantasy of the island would somehow be shattered. I had to convinced her that she would see the value of this film once the story came together, and that if she let me film, she could look at the cut and tell me what she thinks. And in that moment, she told me I reminded her of Colin Low, like this idea of just like needing to, or really wanting to, do this thing because I knew what it could be.

Dropstones-BTS_1.JPG


HD: Why was the idea of being compelled towards home, and the image of the dropstone, appealing to you to explore cinematically?

CD: Many reasons. I learned that there are many dropstones on the island, and I thought it was just such a beautiful metaphor, the idea of a rock that is meant to exist in one place, but through nature—being lifted off by a glacier and a piece of that breaking off and into the ocean as an iceberg which drifts and eventually melts, —essentially drops on new land and ends up somewhere where it doesn't natively belong. That's very similar to settlers in Canada and specifically to Sonya’s family. They were Irish fishermen who came on a boat across the ocean, just for a temporary work, and thought they would go back. Eventually they became these permanent fixtures in a landscape that is extremely challenging to live in In all the research I did, there has been no evidence of other humans actually settling on the island leading up to that point. It is believed that even Indigenous people would only come when it was appropriate for fishing season or caribou hunting. Fogo Island is a very remote place.

The more I talked to Sonya the more I realized that a huge part of her identity was made up of living in this place. That’s something I’d never experienced myself. I grew up in the suburbs, and I can't say that I look back to my suburban childhood as any kind of signifier for who I am, or as a place from which I gain confidence. And I think that’s a really beautiful thing for Sonya. I remember driving home one day after interviewing her and feeling like this whole part of myself didn't exist and could never exist because I didn't have that type of upbringing. Then I starting thinking that maybe this was also true for a lot of people who identify as urban folk, and this film could be a really beautiful way to share this feeling with other people, and perhaps also challenge some of the stereotypes associated with people who live more rurally.

HD: The cinematography is really beautiful and you directed, shot and edited the whole thing. Did you always intend to make the film on your own?

CD: At the beginning I really wanted to make the film on my own. I wanted to go somewhere and be immersed and make an observational film and sort of see what would happen. After my initial research trip, I loved the idea of coming back with a camera operator but I couldn't afford to bring anybody. But after the first year I spent with Sonya and the boys, I realized that it was so much better being on my own. I just became one of them, and they didn't think twice about me. I was basically living with them, and I don't know that anybody else would have necessarily wanted to do that with me. But I will say, in hindsight, I wish that I had one other person who had been there for the whole journey, and who cared about the film close to or as much as I did. Even if that was a producer, because it was very lonely and isolating process. But I learned a lot and I do feel proud of myself.

Dropstones-BTS_3.JPG


HD: Can you talk about how you financed the film?

CD: I got the Holy Trinity Arts Council grants. I got a Toronto Arts Council grant, which got me to Fogo Island the first time. When I initially went there I thought I was going to make a very different film but I came back without getting what I wanted. Then I got an Ontario Arts Council grant and filmed over a winter and thought maybe I had enough for a short film. Then I participated in the DOC Breakthrough Program (mentorship and pitching program) and, when I started showing the film to people for the first time, I realized the film wasn't done and I needed to go back. Then I got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. I barely paid myself, so I could afford to pay for things like post-production and musical composition.

It took me a long time to make the film, almost six years. Not only was I waiting for money to come in, but I was working full time in between. I feel really fortunate for the arts council system. I had an amazing opportunity and was at least able to pay everybody who worked on the film.

Interview conducted by Hot Docs industry programmer Madelaine Russo.

Categories: Director's Notebook

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